Arab League members said yesterday the use of chemical weapons in Syria had crossed "a global red line" and some threw their support behind a US strike.
John Kerry met representatives of the league, including Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and officials from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in Paris as part of a whirlwind European tour aimed at gathering support before a crucial vote in the US Senate on Wednesday.
"All of us agree, not one dissenter, that Assad's deplorable use of chemical weapons … crosses an international global red line," the US secretary of state said after the talks."Today we discussed the possible and necessary measures that can be taken."
The diplomatic effort came as Bashar Al Assad again denied launching a chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb on August 21, and called on the US Congress to reject a military response.
Mr Al Assad also "suggested that there would be, among people that are aligned with him, some kind of retaliation if a strike was made", said Charlie Rose of CBS, who interviewed him.
Mr Kerry said several Arab countries would back military action, but they would not be named, allowing policymakers to drum up support at home and within their respective governments. "They will make their own announcements in the next 24 hours," he said.
The Qatari foreign minister Khalid Al Attiyah said his country was "currently studying with its friends and the United Nations what it could provide in order to protect the Syrian people".
Aside from France, few countries have explicitly said they would support US-led military action, posing a challenge to Barack Obama as he tries this week to persuade a reluctant Congress to back his proposed strikes. Mr Obama is to address the American public tomorrow.
Particularly troubling has been the lack of support from Arab countries. A meeting of Arab League foreign ministers last week in Cairo declined to endorse military action, despite blaming the Assad government for the chemical attack that the United States says killed more than 1,400.
Mr Kerry also flew to London yesterday to consult with British and Saudi officials.
His international push is partly aimed at breaking "public antipathy and congressional ambivalence" back home, analysts said.
"He's playing to two audiences, one is on the international stage, but he is also playing to the domestic stage," said Shashank Joshi, fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in the UK. "Part of the effort to build a coalition of the willing is trying to persuade the domestic electorate and by extension Congress."
Late on Saturday, Mr Kerry and the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said seven of the G8 nations and 12 of the G20 shared the US and France's view "as to the necessity of a strong reaction" to Mr Al Assad's use of chemical weapons.
"That's a majority, and in a democracy that's pretty strong," said Mr Kerry. "I think it's a very powerful statement."
He said "a number" of Arab League countries signed on to the G20 agreement, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
"We in Qatar support the statement of the 12 out of the G20," Mr Al Attiyah said. "We call on other countries to intervene to protect the Syrian people from what they are being subjected to."
The European Union, however, stopped short of backing military action on Saturday, and said any action should wait until a UN weapons inspection team released its findings.
"Most countries in Europe are multilateral and they want UN backing," said Koert Debeuf, a Cairo representative of liberals in the EU parliament. "That makes the strikes very hard to sell."
Popular opinion and memories of the Iraq war have also complicated efforts to muster support in Europe, and Mr Kerry admitted on Saturday that there "there is an Iraq hangover" lingering over public opinion.
"But that cannot strip away from us our responsibility to meet real threats today," he said.
Mr Kerry also said yesterday that he did not rule out returning to the UN Security Council to seek backing, but that no decision had been made.
Iran's foreign minister yesterday said any strikes without the support of the Security Council were illegal and risked a regional conflict.
"Those who are short-sighted and are beating the drums of war are starting a fire that will burn everyone," Mohammad Javed Zarif said.
Concern about the effect of strikes on a political solution has been another topic of Mr Kerry's tour. The United States, the EUn and the Arab League all say there is no military solution to the Syrian civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people and displaced millions. They have backed a so-called Geneva II peace conference proposed by the US and Russia to bring all parties in the conflict to the table.
Mr Fabius said on Saturday that the strikes were a "prerequisite" for peace talks, because Mr Al Assad "will not join any negotiation as long as he believes he is invincible".
But Mr Joshi said the link between talks and punitive strikes remained unclear.
"What's the strategic plan? There is a question mark over how this relates to the strategy of political solution and peace talks," he said. "The honest answer is probably that we don't know. It could weaken the regime, or it may make them and their allies more recalcitrant."
Mr Debeuf said one important indicator could be the number of defections preceding any military action.
"One major factor in the strike is going to be defections," he said, and he anticipated military strikes would spur some within the Assad regime to step down.
"This is very important because it's also boosting the morale of the opposition and it's a big blow for the Assad regime."
Mr Obama's top aide, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, yesterday pressed the case for "targeted, limited consequential action to deter and degrade" the capabilities of the Assad regime "to carry out these terrible" chemical weapons attacks again.
* Additional reporting by Reuters, Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press